What Is a TED Talk?

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A TED talk is a fascinating explanation of a Technology, Entertainment or Design (TED) topic by experts at the cutting edge of their fields. Well, that was the original idea, but the modern TED Talk has grown to encompass science, philosophy and just about any other area of human inquiry.

TED Talks are therefore less defined by the subject matter it deals with and more by how it packages and shares that content. What are TED talks? Do TED talks have real depth, or are they the fast food of the intellectual world?

A (Very) Quick History Of TED

The TED conference has been around since 1984! Long before streaming internet video was a thing. The first conference showcased things like the compact disc and the Apple Macintosh. Despite having intellectual royalty, cutting-edge ideas, and devices on show, the first TED conference was a total failure financially.

It lost so much money that it would be another six years before the second TED Talk. It would take until the 2000s before TED Talks really started to gain traction and the rest is history.

What Makes TED Talks Special?

It’s not quite possible to distill the typical TED talk into a reproducible formula, though you’ll find plenty of articles on the net that try to dissect the “anatomy of a TED talk”, usually with the promise that you too can learn to be as compelling.

The easiest way to understand the TED style, is actually to strip all the substance out. Leaving only the style. Which is exactly what CBC Comedy has done in this hilarious sendup of TED and TED-like talks. 

Which is not to say that TED Talks are vapid, far from it! They are generally very informative and introduce a general audience to complex ideas and cutting-edge research. That’s really the strength of a TED talk. The ability to offer a lay audience clear insight into complex stuff is the real value offered by the format.

TED talks also have a strict time limit of 18 minutes. Why specifically 18 minutes? According to TED itself, this is the result of careful, scientifically-backed reasoning. Regardless, it turned out to be a pretty good length for various reasons. Speakers have a timer on stage, and so have to make sure they say everything they need to in the allotted time. It’s just enough time to give a fairly detailed talk, but short enough to keep things focused.

The best TED talks have speakers with charisma and usually have strong humor, awe, inspiration or other strong emotional basis. Many TED speakers have plenty of impactful anecdotes to accompany the otherwise dry statistics they need to show everyone.

It’s this potent mix of entertainment and information that makes just about any good TED talk so compelling. Even if it’s about a subject you don’t care about at all.

TED vs TEDx

TED is a pretty exclusive and very expensive conference to attend. Which is why it only became a household name when the talks were recorded and shared widely on the net. Which is part of the reason “TEDx” exists. TEDx talks and conventions are licenced, independent events from all over the world. They are not organized by TED.

Instead TED provided permission and guidance to anyone who applied to host a TEDx. Many of the best TED talks are in fact TEDx talk. As a viewer online, it doesn’t make that much difference. However, it’s important to understand that TEDx can be like “TED Lite” in the sense that you won’t always see the most prominent folks or exactly the same level of production quality.

The Negative Side Of TED Talks

In general, TED Talks have been a positive development in the sense that it has awakened curiosity in the average person and turned some very dry (yet important) topics into very shareable content.

However, there’s a dark side to TED Talks that everyone should keep in mind when consuming their content. TED talks have a tendency to oversimplify complex issues. They can make it seem like a breakthrough is closer or has fewer problems than in reality. It’s the nature of this polished format that can make things seem more impressive than they really are.

So as impressed, inspired and awestruck you feel after watching a TED Talk, it’s worth doing some actual research to separate the hype from reality before you get swept toward false conclusions.

Must-See TED Talks

There are hundreds of TED Talks to choose from, so it can be hard to know where to begin. As long-time TED Talk watchers ourselves, however, we can recommend a few of the most interesting, mind-bending and plain amazing talks that have graced the TED stage. Watch these suggested talks and you’re sure to be hooked on the TED experience.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

In this amazing video, Sir Ken Robinson makes us reevaluate how we think about education, schooling, and intelligence. He makes the argument that we’re all smart and creative in our own ways, but by the time we’ve been pushed through our industrial age education assembly line, it’s all been washed away.

While a lot of what Robinson says is debatable, it’s a refreshing tear down of an educational system that’s a much more recent invention than most people realize.

The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen

If you’ve ever taken a statistics course, you’ll know it can be a dry subject. Which is why Hans Rosling’s TED Talk on statistics became such a famous video. In this amazing piece Hans shows us how statistics can be visualized to be interesting and informative, while also showing us some shocking numbers of counterintuitive truths about the world.

The New Bionics That Let Us Run, Climb And Dance

Hugh Herr provides an inspirational account of how he overcame losing both of his feet, while also showcasing cutting-edge bionics that are literally life-changing. This video is from all the way back in 2014, so we can only imagine how much his team has accomplished since then!

The History Of Our World In 18 Minutes

An 18-minute limit is tight no matter what topic you’re exploring, but David Christian took it as a personal challenge, using that time to talk about, well, everything. That’s right, from the Big Bang all the way through a series if somewhat smaller bangs, right up to the present day. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time looks positively gargantuan in comparison!

It’s easy to get hung up on all the negative stuff the internet seems to bring, but content like TED Talks show what’s possible when you use the medium right. Sure, you have to be a critical viewer whenever a subject is important rather than pure entertainment, but TED Talks expand our imaginations even when the talks aren’t perfect.

Do you have a TED Talk that had a major impact on you? Share your recommended videos down in the comments, and let us know what you think about TED and their impact on the world.

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